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February 2005 Issue

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A Tale of Two Students

By Andra L. Dorlac, Ranken Technical College

Email: aldorlac@ranken.edu

The social learning theory of Albert Bandura emphasizes the role played by others with whom we associate in shaping our learning and ultimately the individuals that we become. Colloquial sayings and folklore caution the upcoming generations to be watchful of “the company you keep” and to not let others “pull you down to their level.” An even more colorful adage warns that “You can’t fly with eagles if you run with turkeys.” Although we accept and often quote such maxims, further examination within the context of social learning theory reveals the depth and breadth of the wisdom contained therein.

Although social learning theory “combines elements from both behaviorist and cognitivist learning theory orientations,” it focuses on the social setting in which learning occurs. Learning is attributed to the “observation of people in one’s immediate environment” and the “processes of modeling and mentoring.” Bandura posits that “learning can be vicarious,” that one can observe and learn from the positive or negative consequences of another’s behavior (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999). Wise is the individual who can benefit from observing others’ mistakes or the advice of a mentor; however, many have also had the misfortune of learning from first-hand experience and the “school of hard knocks.”

From this point forward, a “Tale of Two Students” will illustrate the possible outcomes of various elements of social learning theory by comparing the backgrounds, experiences, and choices of two college students, henceforth referred to as Tom Turkey and Harry Eagle (pun intended) as each follows a path that leads him to “fly with eagles” or “run with turkeys.”

Tom Turkey is a first generation student at the local community college and expects it to be much like high school, where he was able to “get by” in his classes and graduate without much studying. He usually did not bother to read the textbooks because the teacher covered it all in class, and he only took two years of math (basic math and consumer math) since he never liked math and was not planning on college. However, after a year of working for minimum wages, he has decided to pursue a two-year vocational program to gain the marketable skills needed to land a “good-paying job.”

Neither of his parents attended college, so they are unaware of the time outside of class required for studying. They expect Tom to continue working after school to pay for his college education and keep up the payments on his new truck and insurance, unable to afford these expenses themselves. As one of Tom’s major reference groups and models, they are unaware and cannot advise him of the amount of time outside of class that he will need for studying, in addition to the large time blocks required for the shop/lab sections of the vocational program.

Tom also continues his friendships with some high school classmates who have chosen to work instead of attend college. As his other major reference group and models, they have no experience in college to share with him either. Their time is mostly their own once they come home from work, and Tom stays out late with friends on weekday evenings as a way to reward himself after a long day of classes and working. Sometimes it is difficult for him to get out of bed in time for his first class, and he is late or misses class altogether. In spite of this, it is still difficult for him to resist his friends’ invitations when they call or come over. 

Once Tom receives several low scores on assignments and tests, he attributes this to the “trick test questions” and material not covered in class by the instructor, unable to recognize his poor study habits and the effect of his attendance problems. After a while, he notices that some students at college talk about staying up late doing homework and studying for tests or working with a tutor. Although Tom is coming to realize that he should spend more time preparing for classes and tests, he continues to give in to the peer pressure of his friends. One evening when he declined going out with them (so he could study for a test the next day), they teased him about getting “edumicated.” He is afraid that he might lose their friendship if he does not join them and is unable to resolve these two conflicting issues, so he discounts the need for more study time.

As the semester goes on and Tom’s grades continue to slip, he blames his employer for his having to leave campus as soon as his classes are over and not having time to study more and still “hang out” with his friends. He reacts to a low score in his composition class by questioning what the writing of essays has to do with his vocational field. He attributes his low math scores to the fact that “he has never liked math” and does not understand why a person “needs algebra anyway.” Even though some of Tom’s teachers and a counselor have taken an interest in him, he is not convinced that anything he could do differently would change anything. He is now awakening with stomach aches or migraines and is finding it more and more difficult to face a day of college classes and has skipped several days. He has come to the conclusion that college is too stressful and depressing and just not for him. A couple of his friends were just hired on at an auto manufacturer in the city, so he decides to withdraw from college and put in his application. A few months after being hired, Tom is laid off.

On the other hand, Harry Eagle is another freshman college student embarking on his studies at the same community college as Tom. His parents have taken some college classes in conjunction with their jobs, and his older brother just transferred from the community college to the state university. Harry has taken the advice of his parents and brother and completed more math and English courses than are required for graduation. While attending high school, he also completed two dual credit courses which count toward his college credits at the community college. A couple of Harry’s friends are attending the community college, as well. His parents are helping him with some of his expenses while he is in college because they know he needs time to study and getting an education is important. Harry is continuing to work part-time while attending college, but has limited his work hours and does not work late on week nights, allowing at least three hours each evening for study. There is still time for socializing with friends on the weekend, and the college offers a number of extra-curricular activities and events that are of interest to him.

Despite all the high school coursework to prepare for college and the advice of his family, Harry is still finding college more challenging than high school. He is learning quickly that the courses move at a much faster pace, fewer tests covering more material are given, and one must read the textbook and take good notes in class. However, he is not becoming discouraged. He recalls that his brother advised him that it may take a while to adjust to each college instructor’s expectations and that he may not really know how to study for a course until he has taken the first test. He uses the assignments and tests in each course, as well as the feedback from the instructor, to determine what adjustments he should make in his study habits. He has observed other students keeping track of assignments and tests in planner/ organizers, writing in the margins of their textbooks, and using note cards for test preparation and decides to try out these strategies. He also follows the example of some of his friends who have joined a study group for one of his courses. Some of his instructors have recognized his efforts, and he respects them and is encouraged by their comments. His grades on tests begin to improve, so he continues these strategies and also visits the learning assistance center next to the library. There he finds information on many study strategies for college, as well as staff and tutors who are ready and willing to give advice and answer any questions he may have.

As the semester unfolds, Harry sees that the actions he has taken are resulting in improved grades and continues the strategies that he has found to be effective. He is staying on top of his studies now and has come to believe that he will do well in college if he focuses on his education. He is looking forward to completing his two years at the community college and transferring to a four-year institution for a bachelor’s degree, just like his brother.

Although the tale of these two students is perhaps oversimplified, social learning theory can certainly provide insight into the characterizations of the Tom Turkeys and Harry Eagles who come to college campuses each year. Although they all may begin with high hopes of getting a college education so they can “fly with eagles,” a good number will continue to “run with turkeys.” The limited background and experiences of their families and friends may often play a large part in hindering their development. Poor models or their choice of reference groups and their need to conform may also factor into their success or failure. It is also not unusual for students to have difficulty aligning their knowledge, feelings, and behavior (Lowery 2004). Weiner’s attribution theory deals primarily with “how individuals interpret events” which indicates their locus of control. A student with “internal locus of control” is likely to view events as controllable, while a student with “external locus of control” is more likely to perceive events as uncontrollable (Kearsley 2003). Students may thereby attribute their low grades to the disposition of others (instructors) or situational components (multiple tests scheduled on the same day) to resolve what Festinger defined as cognitive dissonance, contradictory attitudes and behaviors (Kearsley 2003). They may discount facts, creating a false consensus in order to maintain their own personal balance. Their past experiences with similar tasks often severely limit their self-confidence (efficacy) in academic environments. When difficulties arise, they easily become discouraged (Lowery 2004)

However, college educators who are fully aware of the effects of social learning dynamics in their students can take a number of measures to offset the potential negative effects. Instructors can provide positive models for students and engender feelings of inclusion in the college community so students begin to adopt academia as a reference group (Wlodkowski 1999). They can also help students resolve the conflicts they may experience between their newfound knowledge and old feelings and attitudes toward education. They may help them to see the connection between their successes or failures and their own actions, rather than attributing these outcomes to the disposition of others or situations beyond their control.

Educators cannot control all of the dynamics of social learning theory and its effects on students. In this “tale of two students,” one could not be saved from the “school of hard knocks” and first-hand experience. However, all is not lost when a student withdraws from college—Tom may at some point return from “running with turkeys,” with a maturity gained from experience that may better prepare him to learn to “fly with eagles” the next time around. 

Kearlsey, G. (2003). Attribution theory (B. Weiner). In Explorations in learning & instruction: The theory into practice database. Retrieved on January 13, 2004, from http://tip.psychology.org/
Kearsley, G. (2003). Cognitive dissonance (L. Festinger). In Explorations in learning & instruction: The theory into practice database. Retrieved on January 13, 2004, from http://tip.psychology.org/
Lowery, B. R. (2004). Social cognitive theory (CD lecture for DEED705). Grambling, LA: Grambling State University.
Meriam, S. B., & Caffarella, R. S. (1999). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Wlodkowski, R. J. (1999). Enhancing adult motivation to learn: A comprehensive guide for teaching all adults. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


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